After only a couple of previous visits for their delightful Sunday Scrambles – once in the company of my esteemed ViaRETRO colleagues Anders and Dave, when I was comprehensively out-nerded by both – Bicester Heritage has quickly become one of my favourite places to visit. Last weekend just confirmed its place in my affections.
On both occasions, there was a fantastic array of classic machinery to take in, and the site is so atmospheric and evocative that it’s an immersive pleasure to just wander randomly about and soak it all up. Needless to say, I was looking forward to another grand day out.
A bit of background for the uninitiated; regular ViaRETRO readers might want to skip the next paragraph…
The Flywheel Festival at Bicester Heritage has been going for just three years and already become a major fixture on the classic calender – but not just because of the presence of hundreds of classic cars. Bicester Heritage – itself only opened in 2013 – is on the site of a former WWII RAF Bomber Training base that has been revived, and many of its old buildings restored in an ongoing project to create a unique site of hangars, workshops and garages dedicated to all things heritage car and aircraft related.
Obviously, it’s the aviation aspect of Bicester Heritage that makes up the “Fly” part of Flywheel, and the event attracts literally thousands of car, aircraft and military vehicle enthusiasts for a weekend of demonstration runs, flights and displays.
This year, it became even bigger, as Flywheel joined forces with the Classic & Sports Car Show for the first time, running over both days of the weekend, of which I elected to attend the Sunday.
While the car aspect of Flywheel is perhaps in some ways little different to a regular Sunday Scramble (in one or two ways, inferior, even – I’ll come to that), the aviation and military displays, special motoring themes, demo runs on the track, fairground rides, more extensive catering and shopping opportunities, not to forget live music throughout the day, make Flywheel more of a family day out, whereas I would say the Scrambles are mainly for classic motoring enthusiasts and dedicated nerds (which is of course not a bad thing).
Now I’ll be honest – I know virtually nothing about aircraft, other than where I want to sit when travelling (window seat being the main priority). Nevertheless, the sight and sound of these venerable old machines taking to the air did indeed stir the soul. But all I can tell you about them is their names – Spitfire, Hurricane, Mustang, Tiger Moth, Lancaster, and so on.
Against a backdrop of cloudless blue sky on yet another glorious June day, and with not even a breath of wind, there were superb demonstrations of aerobatics, individually in a Pitts Special, and from the Tiger 9 display team (I never knew planes could be flown so sloooowly) and the flyby of Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster bomber was spectacular (as well as the best chance to get a cold beer and a sandwich without queueing for 20 minutes).
I know even less about military vehicles, and spent precisely no time looking at them – I was there for the cars, of course, and it’ll be the cars I will concentrate on now, as there were multiple delights to see, hear and smell (and no, I don’t mean the food stalls).
In the spirit of recent comments made on ViaRETRO, I took the Lemon along the country route to Bicester rather than up the M40. On the way, I spotted a light metallic blue E-Type coupé gleaming in the morning sunshine, and a lovely cream Pagoda SL, but no other classics until I was within a mile of Bicester.
After a bit of a queue to get in, I was surprised to find that there was no BMW Club stand. Instead I was directed to park in a general area where clubs with fewer than 20 cars attending were mixed together – which I actually thought was a good thing, since variety is the spice and all that. So I parked the Lemonalongside an equally lemon-y Alpine Renault A610, one of two there, out of only 68 imported into the UK. After a chat with the owner – who had run his A610 for twenty years, I set off for a wander. A mere ten yards further on I found myself chatting with John Castle, who used to run the E9 Register, and had just arrived in his 3.0 CSL, a car he had largely restored himself. His was one of three CSL’s there, all fabulous, of course. Not so fabulous was the BMW 635CSi pick-up – yes, you read that right. A travesty.
By 10:00 there were already long queues to get in, and I finally managed to set off on my stroll through the riches. At a show where there was so much to see, I’m going to try to restrict myself to just a relatively few highlights – though I shall probably fail.
While there was no BMW club stand, there were other marques represented in grand numbers by their associated clubs – MG, Triumph, Porsche, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Morgan and TVR were all present in healthy quantities. The rest of us were arranged randomly across one main field, which allowed for surprise discoveries every few yards among a cornucopia of classics.
One of the things that always strikes me at classic events is how much more colourful cars used to be than they are today (with the exception of custom colours and Lamborghini’s). It takes a lot for an MGA to stand out among 50 or more MGs, but there was a brilliant green MGA that caught the eye, a startling metallic green TVR Tamsin 280i, the blingiest Citroen SM, in gold, that I’ve ever seen, a lustrous purple Datsun 260Z, a Gallo Fly Ferrari Dino 246 GT (my favourite colour for these beautiful cars), a just as yellow TR7, a lime-green over cream Lotus Elan, and various shades of red, blue, yellow and green everywhere.
One of my favourite sights was the row of no less than three Gordon Keebles that had arrived together, one in a fantastic metallic burgundy. As if the sight of three GK’s in a row wasn’t special enough, just a couple of rows behind this trio was a fourth GK, in the same burgundy colour, parked alongside an equally glamorous Pagoda. Imagine those two in your garage! It also meant that an impressive 4% of all GK’s produced were parked within 20 yards of each other!
Among other parking pairings was a brace of fabulous Lancia Flaminia GT’s alongside each other – again, how often? – and a pair of British icons, two Aston Martin DB5’s together.
I loved the co-incidental pairing of a 1962 Alfa Romeo Giulietta ti alongside a 1949 Rover P3 75 – they just looked so damned cute together, as did a Fiat 600 and Abarth 695. Most ludicrous “pairing”? A Ginetta G4 and a massive trike, itself bigger than most cars, and in my view, utterly pointless – but each to their own of course.
Other eye candy? A truly fabulous 1961 Alfa Romeo Giulietta SS, a Rene Bonnet Matra Djet, a superb Opel Commodore B GS/E (all three of which I’ve seen before at Bicester, but no less of a visual treat for that), a 1965 Gilbern GT from Wales, a very rare Intermeccanica Italia Spyder in red, a gorgeous Triumph Italia 2000 (one of only 329 built) also in red, and of course a Fiat Dino Spyder in dark metallic blue – just beautiful. Last, but not least, a dinky 1968 NSU Prinz, complete with Wankel rotary engine. I could go on and on, but the pictures will tell all you need to know.
There were a number of cars in the field with “For Sale” notices, as always at this kind of show. Two of the most interesting were a white Corvair at £11,500, including a bunch of spares itself including both an engine and gearbox, which I thought represented pretty good value, and a lovely white-with-green-flash, fully-restored 1965 Lotus Cortina Mk1, which could be yours for somewhat more – the owner asking for offers over £65,000. More expensive still, a stunning 1968 Lamborghini Islero – one of only 125 built, according to the owner’s info, and the subject of a recent £105k restoration – was available for a mere £375,000… in my dreams…
Much more realistically priced, a thoroughly charming Series One Peugeot 304 convertible in gleaming white, for £7,500 – a lot of French style for the money, I would say, especially in the kind of weather we’ve been enjoying this year! It was also one of the rarest cars there – according to the owner, it’s one of just two right-hand-drive examples on the road in the UK.
Interestingly, these cars were in the general parking area rather than the special Private Sales Paddock that had been made available. I can’t say that this area was particularly obvious, and I wonder whether the increased charge for parking there meant there was little take up, especially when you can just put a notice in your windscreen.
Of course, there were also some dealer cars available, although many of the site’s businesses had decided not to open their doors for the day. One of the ways in which the Scrambles are better is that more of the specialist businesses invite the punters inside for a look. Maybe it was because Flywheel is deemed more of a general enthusiast’s weekend, but it would have still added to the general vibe had more of them opened up. One dealer car that attracted a lot of attention was a barn-find 1958 Jaguar XK 150S – price on application, of course. I’ve never understood the point of “POA”, other than to tell you that you probably can’t afford it. Surely it either has a price, or it doesn’t, which will itself give you the information you need.
As I continued my wanderings in the late morning heat, the other area where I felt Flywheel was not quite as good as the Scrambles was also linked to the relatively few open businesses, and that is in the cars that would be randomly parked around the inner roads and buildings. There were some – the mighty 1955 “Wooly Bully” [sic] Carrera Panamericana Lincoln owned by Julian Balme from Classic & Sports Car, a huge Chevrolet Malibu, a handsome pair of Jaguars – an XK150 and a 3.8 Mk 2, both in dark blue, and a sage green metallic Aston Martin DB2 (the last three certainly dealer cars), but these gems were relatively thin on the ground around the grounds, so to speak.
Some of the cars had been divided into themed groups, for reasons that become clear later on – Movie Star Cars such as the Shelby Mustang from Bullitt, lots of bikes, a Brightwells Auction (£20 entry, so I demurred – free viewing was on Saturday), and a particularly interesting area featuring classic racing and rally cars, many of which also took part in the demo runs around the improvised “track”. These demo runs were held throughout the day, and among those I caught while on my wanderings was a mighty Chevy Impala, a D-Type Jaguar, Porsche 356, and Lotus Mk10 – the last three all from 1955 – and many others, including a number of bikes. Seeing these wonderful old machines being driven or ridden around the short circuit – in some cases, being given a bit of “welly” as we like to say here – was a complete delight, proving once again that classics don’t have to be museum pieces. By this time, the cold beer that I’d held out for made a very welcome appearance in my right hand.
There was much more to see in between checking my phone for updates on the England game, which, unusually, made me smile every time….
I’ll admit to not being much of a pro on pre-war classics, although many of them are wonderful to behold. A couple that really stood out for me were the utterly gorgeous 1930 Rolls Royce 20/25 in red over cream, and a delightful 1930 Renault Monastello in pale yellow and black. Among the racing cars from this period, there were a couple of fabulous Bugatti’s – a Type 30 and a Type 43 from 1925 and 1928 respectively. There’s a magic attached to the Bugatti name which few other marques possess – possibly Ferrari, Porsche, and then? Maybe it’s time I dug a little deeper into this era.
A really intriguing display was The Class of 1948. Here were cars from the immediate post-war period which stood out one way or another – a Bristol 401, an early Land Rover, a beautiful Aston Martin 2-litre Sports, and most interestingly, a streamlined 1950 Tatra T600 Tatraplan – apparently these had a drag co-efficient of only 0.32, well ahead of the times. Note also the “suicide” front door! This wasn’t the only Tatra present – just behind it was another representative from the former Czechoslovakia, a 613 – these were designed by Vignale, but it looked less than elegant to my eye.
There was a small “Dawn of the Supercar” paddock with a Maserati Bora, Lamborghini Miura and De Tomaso Mangusta among others present and correct, and a display marking 50 years of British Leyland, which really took me back to my days of working there. For fans of brown cars (and I know you’re out there!), there was a 1975 Vanden Plas Allegro 1500 (just ugh!) and a very smart 1976 Jaguar XJ12 Coupé, but the most interesting car in this section, to me, was the 1969 Austin 3-litre – I cannot remember the last time I saw one of these; essentially a bloated land-crab, which was also it’s problem in the then-executive sector.
These groups of cars also competed for the inaugural Flywheel Concours, which I have since found out was won by the 1962 Series 1 E-Type Coupé driven by Sean Connery in 1964’s Woman of Straw (nope, me neither!?), and in parallel to this, there was a People’s Concours, selected by visitors to the show over the two days. This was held in memory of the late David Evans of Classic & Sports Car, a friend of the classic car scene for many years and known personally to some of the ViaRETRO team and not least many of our readers. The overall winner turned out to be a very smart 1960 Hillman Minx 3a, which was only there on the Saturday, meaning I sadly missed it along with possibly a whole bunch of other beauties. It makes me wonder if perhaps I should have attended both days, but then this piece may well have been twice as long…
Time to try to pick a Car of the Day. Sticking to those that had been driven to the show by their owners, it has to be one of either the Fiat Dino Spyder, or one of the two metallic burgundy Gordon Keebles… equally gorgeous, rare and desirable, yet very different. I can’t pick one; can you?